Wondering how to monetize your email newsletters?
It’s common knowledge that if you run an online business, you should have a mailing list. Email marketing can be up to 40 times more effective than social media at promoting your brand and driving sales.
But what if you could do more with a mailing list than send out routine messages to your followers? Can a mailing list become a complete product?
The short answer is “yes.” For some entrepreneurs, curated and monetized newsletters are bringing in thousands of new readers and turning into revenue streams in their own right. Whether you are looking for new direct revenue through paid newsletter subscriptions, indirect revenue through lead generation or affiliate marketing, or a combination of these approaches, now is good time to revisit email newsletters as a business model.
Why Monetize Your E-mail Newsletters Now?
E-mail newsletters have been around since the earliest days of the internet, but they are now enjoying a renaissance – and generating more success than ever before.
Partly because the days of inboxes overflowing with spam are largely behind us, thanks to stringent consumer protections that penalize spam mail. That has led to an increase in people willing to sign up for newsletters that promise real value.
In addition, the increased convenience of smartphone email access — and designs that improve user experience and make newsletter emails look more like glossy magazines than the ramblings of your crazy uncle — make newsletters more appealing than ever before.
Today’s newsletters aren’t just touch points between a business and their customers. They provide valuable content, not hard pitches. They present information in short, easy to skim segments that get to the point and entertain as they inform. And if you want to unsubscribe, there’s an easy way to opt out.
Most important of all, newsletters now provide an important service in cutting through the cacophony of online voices. There are over a billion websites out there, so knowing which to believe and which offer information that is truly useful and valuable can be a minefield. Instead, it’s easier to find a single source you trust and let them curate information for you.
The Purpose of Your E-mail Newsletter
Successful email newsletters need three things:
If your aim is to monetize your newsletter, then purpose really needs to be the starting point out of this list.
Let’s face it, most email newsletters are pretty “loose” in their purpose. The writer/publisher may be pretty irregular about sending it out. The focus may be all over the map. Sometime it’s short, sometimes it’s long, but with no real rhyme or reason. In general, the newsletter feels like a “one-off” or afterthought that does not play a critical role in the business.
Maybe you’ve experienced this kind of thing with your own newsletter?
Just as with any other aspect of your business, if you aren’t clear about what a newsletter is meant to achieve for you and your business, then there is a very good chance you won’t achieve much! So …
Will your newsletter exist primarily to showcase your expertise, build your authority, and bolster your brand?
Do you simply want to build rapport with your audience?
Will it be a major source of lead generation for you?
Do you aim to establish as an independent brand and product in its own right – something that could even potentially be spun off and sold?
Most people just don’t put this level of intention and focus into how they think about their newsletter, but just a little bit of thought can really transform the role your newsletter plays for your business.
Obviously, a newsletter can support multiple goals, but there should be a primary goal underpinning the project as a whole, and each individual email you send.
How to Find an Audience for Your Newsletter
Once your newsletter has a purpose, it’s much easier to align it with the right audience.
If you’ve decided to create a newsletter aimed at keeping business leads warm, then target your existing and potential customers. If you want to build authority, what audience can you attract that has the most influence in your field?
If you intend for the newsletter to become its own business which audience or segment of an audience will provide the highest return on investment?
If you are starting from scratch, or if your goal is to target a new or expanded audience rather than just serve your existing customers, then you will definitely want to find your strategic focus and take the same sorts of steps in validating your audience as you would for other expertise-based products – like, for example, an online course.
Newsletter Audience Ideas
The good news is that you are pretty much bound to be able to identify an audience and a purpose that align. Some very quick examples of possibilities include:
- A reputation-building newsletter (purpose) in the business development field that targets C-suite execs (audience)
- A lead-generating newsletter (purpose) for a kids’ toys website that targets new parents (audience)
- A free-standing newsletter than generates affiliate income from curating high-value camera equipment (purpose), aimed at amateur photographers (audience)
- A paid newsletter subscription that provides premium content to your online course purchasers (audience) who really want continuing, in-depth support on a specific topic (purpose)
Naturally, you can swap out “audience” and “purpose” above with your own terms, and we’ll dig more into business models in a minute.
The main thing is that your audience must fulfill your newsletter’s purpose and vice-versa – and that means targeting prospective readers’ interests, background, and socioeconomic status. Then you have to provide something in your newsletter that they need and can’t easily get elsewhere.
What information could they use that can be delivered in a regular, convenient newsletter?
It could be news, advice, education, or entertainment — almost anything, but it must have a hook, a key selling point that will encourage readers to invite your newsletter into their life.
In short, to monetize your newsletter, it has to have the right content.
How to Choose a Newsletter Content Strategy
Once you have defined your newsletter’s audience and purpose, you will probably already have several good ideas for content. The content has to be explicitly relevant both to what your newsletter is about and the people you want to attract.
Take the first example above, a reputation-building newsletter in the business development field aimed at C-suite execs. Perhaps your primary business is in thought leadership and your ultimate goal is to book more consulting gigs with Fortune 500 companies. To do that, you need to hold a solid reputation among major decision makers, and you’ve decided a newsletter is the perfect way to introduce yourself to them and get them used to hearing your name and trusting your opinions.
What do executives need that they can’t get elsewhere? What value can your newsletter add to their lives? One example might be time. They want to stay informed, but might not have the time available to read through all the news and business sites to get the latest updates. Your newsletter, timed to arrive during the morning commute, could provide a brief summary of the day’s major news events and business updates that affect their work. That’s something worth subscribing to. In fact, according to Quartz’s Global Executive Survey, 94% of executives get their news from email newsletters.
Knowing your purpose, audience, and content strategy will help you devise a newsletter that adds value that subscribers want. It will also point you in the best places to promote your newsletter and encourage new readers to sign up. Look at where your target audience already turns for information, and the kind of voices they trust.
How Often to Send Your E-mail Newsletter
Another factor to consider is the frequency of your email newsletter. Will it be daily, weekly, monthly…?
The more frequent your newsletter, the faster it generates results, but that also requires more work from you to find and write the content. Be realistic about what it’s possible for you to do. If you know you don’t really have time for a daily newsletter, it will show in your content. You’re far better switching to a weekly, or even monthly model, and ensuring every email you send is high quality.
Remember: your subscribers should look forward to opening your newsletter and value the content you provide. Sending out too many so-so emails will quickly lead to low open rates and unsubscribes.
Original vs Curated Newsletter Content
Original content is the gold standard of newsletters. It allows you to say exactly what you want, when you want. You have more control over your brand voice, and have the freedom and flexibility to shift gears as needed. Newsletters should feel personal when subscribers read them, like you’re writing to each person individually. With original content, your voice comes through loud and clear.
The downside to creating original content is the time it takes to create. Faced with a blank page and thousands of expectant readers every day, will you be able to continually generate new copy that keeps them interested? Can you write 365 different articles about your subject without getting bored?
If the answer is no, you should consider using curated content instead.
Curated content is your take on information found elsewhere. It could be news updates, as in the above example. It could be movie reviews, product announcements, assorted thinkpieces, or anything else your subscribers find interesting and relevant. Think of your newsletter like a magazine cover, a collection of articles and quick bites you offer to your subscribers, with links for them to follow if they want to read the original source.
The biggest advantages to curated content are speed and simplicity. They’re fast to put together, and they provide the ideas for you. Rather than coming up with a new content plan for every email, you just need to find the useful information and add your opinion to the mix. This is great for keeping your newsletter at the cutting edge of your field and helps to build your authority as a voice worth listening to about daily events.
But you still have to put in the work to find the content, and it could pull you in directions you don’t like. If a major scandal engulfs your industry, do you ignore it, or do you risk alienating your target audience? It can also be tricky to navigate curated content newsletters during slow news periods, when there isn’t a lot of information to report.
The ideal solution, in my opinion, is to combine curated and original content into a hybrid content strategy. This brings your voice to the fore, while reducing your overall workload. If the news is slow or uncomfortable, you can lean on original content to bridge the gap. And when you’re feeling burned out and don’t have another think piece in you, you can quickly put together your take on somebody else’s story.
5 Ways to Monetize Your Email Newsletter
There are a number of ways to monetize newsletters, but the five main ones include:
1. Lead Generation
This one is obvious enough that I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. In general, your newsletter can be a powerful way to support nearly all of the ways you can monetize your expertise and that includes generating leads for the range of products and services you offer.
The main thing I’ll add here is that you need to be intentional about using your newsletter as a lead generation tool and that means you need to have a way to clearly track results and see how it performs. If you are driving newsletter readers to a lead form, for example, then you need to be able to tell how many people clicked through to the form and how many actually filled it out. You can do this, among other ways, use by simply using Google Analytics to set goals and track conversions.
2. Subscription Fees
The most direct way to make money with newsletters, of course is to charge for subscriptions.
For some readers, that might seem like a crazy suggestion, but if you provide trusted, high-value content, you’ll find subscribers willing to pay – and that’s truer now than it has ever been before. In fact, there is a growing number of paid newsletter subscription services already facilitating this model. The most popular is Substack, which boasts half a million paying subscribers to newsletters hosted on its platform (as of Feb. 2021).
Substack recommends starting a free newsletter and building your audience before switching to a monetized model. Around 5-10% of subscribers will convert from free to paid, which is a big drop. However, if you have 10,000 free subscribers and turn on monetization at $7, that’s $3500-$7000 per month (up to $84,000 annually) in predicted income.
Not bad for a daily email!
If you don’t want to lose the remaining 90% of your subscribers, you can also employ a hybrid monetization model where you keep some content free but hold back the best for paid newsletter readers.
There is also a less direct newsletter subscription model available to content creators through sites such as Medium. Here you’ll earn income based on the reading time paid members spend on your newsletter. This makes your income unpredictable and isn’t a great model if the primary goal of your newsletter is to generate revenue, but it is a good way to open up an additional stream of passive income from a newsletter designed to fulfill another purpose.
3. Affiliate Marketing
Aside from lead generation, affiliate marketing is the easiest way to monetize your newsletters and it has the benefit of creating a passive income stream for you.
The way affiliate revenue works, if you refer a prospect to a product – for example, but linking to it in your newsletter, you get a commission if the prospect actually buys.
One of the keys to being a successful affiliate marketer is to become a trusted “curator” of products that are truly relevant and useful to your audience – and this approach jibes perfectly with creating and publishing a newsletter, possibly even more so for one that offers curated content.
This doesn’t mean you have to use every product you highlight – often that would be impractical or impossible – but it does mean you need to take time to vet the products and the company to make sure you think they are of high quality. Present these products in a highly relevant way within the context of your newsletter content and you are bound to get a healthy number of clicks along with a healthy conversion rate.
4. Sponsorships and Ads
As with podcasts, sponsorships and ads are also possible and work particularly well for industry-specific newsletters.
If your newsletter shares an audience with another business, consider approaching them about a sponsorship deal. Or if you prefer to keep everything under your name, sell ad space instead.
Keep in mind that in an industry-specific situation you often do not need to have a large list of subscribers – especially if your sponsor or advertise is selling to business buyers. Even a small list of the right prospects can be very valuable to these types of sponsors and advertisers.
Allowing for guests posts and product features can also be an aspect of this approach, but be sure to vet contributions carefully. Remember subscribers want your voice, and your curation. Allowing another business to hijack your brand can end up costing you far more than they’ll pay.
Of course, there is a limit to how heavily you monetize your newsletter. Nobody wants to open an infomercial first thing in the morning. A single banner ad or unobtrusive nod toward a particular product or service can help you monetize your content without putting off readers.
Chances are most readers won’t think of this one, but it’s a “thing” as popular newsletters build a brand. Note that there is an entire “Gear” section in the top navigation of the Further newsletter, for example. The same is true at Morning Brew.
Now, you probably aren’t likely to make a fortune with this approach, but as you build a brand, it can create a nice little income stream. And, of course, to the extent you are selling your own branded stuff, people will be paying you to walk around proudly displaying your brand.
Not bad for just publishing a regular email.
How to Host a Monetized Newsletter
Your final consideration before starting your newsletter is how to distribute it to readers.
Traditional E-mail Service Provders
The obvious option is an e-mail service provider like Mailchimp, ActiveCampaign, or ConvertKit. These software services all provide lots of tools and features designed to make sending e-mail newsletters — and remaining compliant with anti-spam legislation — a breeze.
However, their costs can quickly add up, and they might not offer the functionality you need for a monetized newsletter, especially if you intend to add a subscription cost. (Of course, most major website builders – e.g., WordPress, Wix, SquareSpace, etc. – have e-commerce options available that will integrate with many major e-mail service providers, enabling you to charge for paid subscriptions.)
|Free plan||2000 subscribers||n/a||1000 subscribers|
|Emails||12,000/mo (free plan) or Unlimited (paid)||Unlimited||Unlimited|
|Automated sequences||1-step (free) or Multi-step (paid)||Yes||Only on paid plans|
|Paid newsletter features||Through integrations||Through integrations||Yes|
If you want to create a subscription newsletter, using one of these services will obviously lose you money upfront while you build your subscribers to a level where you can switch on monetization.
While that may seem daunting, the upside is that you maintain maximum control over every aspect of your newsletter – as you would, for example, by having your own website rather than relying on Facebook or LinkedIn for your online presence. The capabilities for tagging subscribers and creating custom landing paged with a platform like ConvertKit – which does also have built-in e-commerce for subscriptions – may make it well worth higher up-front costs.
Paid Newsletter Services
The main other option is to go with one of the paid newsletter subscriptions services that are quickly growing in popularity. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most popular services
Substack charges nothing for hosting and distributing your newsletter until you begin to monetize it. Instead they charge 10% of subscription fees once your newsletter switches to a paid model. Depending on the number of readers prepared to pay for a subscription, that could end up costing far more than other newsletter services charge for the same number of readers, but the ability to test the water for free makes Substack a competitive option.
Ghost provides many of the same features as Substack, but charges users on a subscription basis from the get-go. Plans start at $29/mo, and Ghost also provides a range of extra features that Substack lacks, including custom domains and email addresses and over a thousand third-party integrations.
Buttondown is another competitor in this field. Its stripped back features take mailing lists back to basics, although with many of the same integrations and smart tools you’d expect under the hood. They charged a fixed rate of $5 per 1000 subscribers (the first 1000 are free), and include subscription payment options through Stripe that won’t cost you a penny extra. Business users can get custom domains and premium integrations for $29/mo.
Finally, Revue does a lot of what Substack does, but undercuts them on pricing — plans are free until a newsletter is monetized, at which point they take 5% of the revenue.
Inspiration to Monetize A Newsletter (Examples)
There are countless monetized newsletters already available if you’re in need of inspiration to get started.
One of the original and best is NextDraft, by Dave Pell. NextDraft started life early in the dotcom boom days. Pell was working as an angel investor in Silicon Valley, and enjoyed sharing relevant news with industry contacts. As he explained: “I used to write a newsletter where I would cover the day’s most fascinating tech news. I’d basically just write up a blurb and link off to the full story for people who wanted it. It was started by just being sent to people that were in my network or CEOs and employees at the companies that I had invested in. It sort of spread from there. At one point, it had about 25,000–30,000 subscribers.”
Pell gave up on his newsletter after the dotcom bubble burst, but revisited the idea in 2008. Initially the newsletter was an exhaustive roundup of the daily news — if it was on the front page of the New York Times, Pell felt compelled to include it in his emails. However this approach fell flat with readers. It wasn’t until the content was condensed into news that Pell felt inspired to add his own commentary on that NextDraft took off. As of 2017, the newsletter had around 100,000 subscribers and enjoyed a 50% open rate.
Branded as “The day’s most fascinating news,” Pell shares ten news stories from the morning’s press that catch his attention. That could be what’s dominating the airwaves, but is just as likely to be a local news item, the latest in science and tech, or the story of a mystery tree beast that turned out to be a croissant. Whatever you’re reading, you get Pell’s signature brand of “fast, pithy wit” and something to talk about over the water cooler.
The newsletter (also available as an iOS app for iPhone and iPad), is “free from any intrusive ads” (although a few unobtrusive ones lurk near the bottom of the screen). Pell monetizes through judicious affiliate marketing and a small online store that sells a few branded stickers and items of clothing, but primarily through sponsorship. Pell says he makes “a decent amount of money” from his sponsor, which gives him the freedom to keep the newsletter’s design clean and neat.
Serial entrepreneur and educator Brain Clark freely admits he was inspired by NextDraft when he started his own newsletter. Further is aimed at midlifers (40-50 somethings), and delivers a weekly roundup of health, wealth, and personal growth resources for Gen Xers.
The newsletter contains occasional affiliate links and hosts guest essays at the end of the main contents. Clark also enrolls all users into an affiliate program where subscribers earn points each time they share the newsletter link. The points can then be exchanged for merchandise in his store. These items (branded stickers and clothing) can also be purchased outright.
Further isn’t Clark’s only newsletter venture. He was the founder and (until this week) CEO of Copyblogger, a successful content marketing training and software platform that has now branched out into a full digital agency. He also heads up Unemployable, an educational platform for entrepreneurs of successful solo ventures (“7-figure small”).
Some businesses base their whole model around a monetized newsletter. The Hustle, by Sam Parr, claims 1.5+ million readers. Targeted at young professionals, it offers “Business and tech news in 5 minutes or less.”
The Hustle was founded in 2016 and delivers topical news stories from around the world. The majority of its income comes from advertising revenue, and its business model was so successful it raised $1.3 million in seed money. A premium newsletter, Trends, offers “vetted business ideas” and market analysis for entrepreneurs, and is priced at $299/year. In 2021, The Hustle was acquired by Hubspot in a deal worth a reported $27 million.
TheSkimm is another newsletter designed to drive its own business from the get-go. Aimed at female millennials, theSkimm is a daily breakdown of news, interviews, and entertainment pieces. It raised $8 million from investors in 2016 with a $55 million valuation, and 18 months later almost doubled those figures, gaining a $100 million valuation and an additional $12 million in investment funds. In total, theSkimm is reported to have raised $28 million from investors. With that money, theSkimm has diversified into an app, as well as video and audio production arms.
That’s a long way from the newsletter envisioned and founded in 2012 by Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, a pair of mid-20s NBC producers who saw a gap in the market to help successful women stay informed in a busy world. They were clearly onto something, because theSkimm gained subscribers at a rate of approximately 1 million per year, before leveling out at around 7 million members.
Monetization comes mostly from advertising and sponsorship. It’s not usual to see a 4th July drinks recipe brought to you by Grey Goose vodka, for example. Investopedia estimates that a single ad, delivered to theSkimm’s 7 million members, costs anywhere from $70,000 to $350,000.
Members can also pay to subscribe — the app costs $2.99/month — and subscribers can join a Q&A text service to speak to staffers. There are also other associated products, including a book, How to Skimm Your Life, and a podcast, Skimm’This.
Another venture started in 2012 is Quartz, a digital media agency publishing “Global news and insights for a new generation of business leaders.” Its founding team came from a background in traditional business journalism, including The New York Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal. Quartz covers “questions of seismic importance” across five websites and half a dozen newsletters. The Quartz Daily Brief is its flagship production, and the publication has around 840,000 subscribers.
The majority of Quartz’s income comes from advertising revenue. Originally the site specialized in high-end brands such as Prada, Credit Suisse, and Infiniti, before in 2018 shifting toward programmatic advertising.
In 2019, Quartz moved all of its online content behind a metered paywall, with the number of free articles each reader could access determined by an algorithm. While the newsletters and apps remained free to all users, subscriptions cost $100/year (or $15/month). The move came two years after the company was acquired by Uzabase for $86 million (it was bought back by the CEO and staff in late 2020).
In 2020, Quartz boasted 16.3 million unique visitors to its website, 31 million social media followers, and is the publication of choice for 25-44-year-old C-suite execs.
Not all newsletters have to be newsy. The Art of Manliness newsletter calls itself a “one-stop resource for actionable advice that covers every aspect of a man’s life.” AoM has an archive of around 4000 articles, all designed to help men improve themselves and reach their full potential.
Unlike most of the other newsletters I’ve reviewed above, the Art of Manliness creates its own content, and monetizes through affiliate revenue. Founded in 2008 by Brett McKay, AoM now brands itself the “largest independent men’s interest magazine on the web.” Learn how to countersink a screw, make fishing hooks from can tabs, wear a sports jacket with jeans, get ripped, and be a good manager, all in a single issue. The eclectic assortment of articles has proven successful enough to attract 68,000 subscribers.
What About the Little Guys?
Looking for inspiration a little closer to home? Substack is a great place to look for successful monetized newsletters. From the Substack home page, it’s easy to find the top paid publications in each category. Simply filter the results to get an idea of the competition in your field, and the potential income available from a successful newsletter.
While Substack keeps its writers’ earnings (mostly) secret, Alexey Guzey did a deep dive into what the site does report to extrapolate earnings from some of the top newsletters if you want to explore what it’s possible to earn from a monetized newsletter.
Here’s my pick of a few of the most successful newsletters on Substack right now.
Sinocism, by Bill Bishop, was the platform’s first official newsletter. Bishop is a former media exec who has lived and worked in China for much of his career. Sinocism provides valuable news and insights for anyone wanting to “get smarter about China,” and boasts almost 85,000 readers. A subscription costs $15/month ($168/year), with discounts available for students and bulk members.
Heated, by Emily Atkin, explores climate science and politics. Akin has around 28,000 subscribers, 10% of whom pay an $8 monthly ($50/annual) fee for premium content.
The Bitcoin Forecast, by Willy Woo, provides an alert service for investors and traders. Although an outlier in only sending an email every 2-3 weeks, this subscription costs $50/month and has hundreds of paying subscribers. Then again, the insights it contains might make them rich.
The MacroTourist Newsletter by Kevin Muir is an “almost daily” roundup of financial news and analysis. It has around a thousand subscribers paying $35 each month for the latest insights.
Slow Boring, by Matthew Yglesias, covers American politics. Several hundred subscribers pay $8/month for premium access to content and an online community based around the newsletter.
Monetize Your E-mail Newsletter: Final thoughts
Making money with a newsletter isn’t only possible, it can be highly lucrative, and the time is right for new content creators to capitalize on the resurgence in newsletter popularity.
Whether you’re driving buyers to your online business, or creating a new brand from the newsletter itself, there are more options available than ever to help you create a mailing list, send emails, and even collect paid newsletter subscription fees from dedicated readers.
JeffTitle image by Tumisu from Pixabay